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Culture by Momaday at the Rasmuson Theater.

By Jerry Reynolds -- Today staff


WASHINGTON - Writing and language are not identical. The tradition of oral storytelling is much more ancient than writing, and author N. Scott Momaday may well be onto something when he says, ''Writing gives us a sense of false security. ... Everything in the oral tradition is just one generation away from extinction.''

By extension, everything in the written tradition could also be at risk in a generation; but cultures based on writing, which is most of them these days, don't see beyond the illusion of durability provided by material pages, not even as volumes of writing vaporize daily in cyberspace.

It's a viewpoint, apparently Momaday's own. But he would be a more convincing advocate of these and other positions if he were not a past master of both writing and public reading, as he proved again Nov. 28 at the National Museum of the American Indian's Rasmuson Theater. To hear him was to suspect that the divide between oral and written storytelling is no more vast than that between the arts and sciences - people, special

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people perhaps, will always bridge it; and other people, perhaps no less special, will always possess the aptitude to appreciate and embrace their achievement.

And so with Momaday, the great and greatly honored writer (Pulitzer Prize for ''House Made of Dawn,'' National Medal for the Arts, Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, recipient of Italy's highest literary award, poet laureate of Oklahoma in the state's centennial year) who reads from manufactured pages in a deep-pitched, authoritative yet friendly voice that doesn't know the meaning of off-balance or unnatural or out-of-key, as if born for the improvisational stage. (Another of Momaday's views is that live theater - calling all Native-language Shakespearians: he mentioned ''Hamlet'' - is contemporary culture's nearest approximation to oral storytelling.) He closed with an oral reading of surpassing satisfaction for the audience, but it was based on a piece of his writing that is surely in the first rank of artful prose.

The scene enlivened by Momaday's voice, but made to matter by inimitable writing, set forth the presence of the Navajo in their finery, their quiet assessment of a rodeo circuit rider and his rope tricks, the dog so often significant in Indian literature, and a Navajo girl on horseback the then-young narrator almost overlooked the first time and never forgot afterward. The pro rider having just missed plucking a dollar bill from the sand at a graceful gallop - something in the horse's lope at the key moment threw him off - the girl came after him and succeeded, standing tall in her stirrups afterward, displaying the dollar, ''going in beauty, trailing laughter.'' A small part of Momaday's art is that we'll probably never know or care if it was planned that way, the consummate showman giving way to a more crowd-pleasing incarnation of youth, beauty and skill; or if the horse in his off-stride heartbeat took a four-legged's revenge for the ill-used dog.

But on the larger points, the birth of romance and memory, Momaday left no doubt - though never seen again, the dark-glancing girl haunts the youngster afterward, a good-humored ghost in the happy shadows where Momaday's imagination thrives.

His view on the false security of writing aside, to watch more than 100 people of all ages and most races offer him an obviously charmed applause was to remember that Bach is a global name today because a few hundred musical pedagogues and their pupils couldn't and wouldn't do without his written musical notation, and that indigenous cultures are today poised for contributions never before encouraged due to comparative handfuls of not-to-be-denied Native peoples who made use of written forms ... and oral transmission.

To judge from Momaday's mastery of both, the harshest skeptic would have to like their chances.